The picture opens with Ondrej as a child, beekeeping by his father’s minor castle. Upset that his dad is about to marry a young girl, he hides bats under the flower petals of a wedding gift and sends his father into a murderous rage. Nearly dead, Ondrej is promised to god by his guilt-ridden father. This sacred vow consigned Ondrej to knighthood in a holy order by the sea, a life he is less enamored with than his dashing mentor Armin.
In keeping with its metaphysical and ideological themes, “Valley of the Bees” has more contemplative tone than “Marketa Lazarova.” The backdrop is still brutal and unforgiving, marked by poverty and abrupt death, but the pace is relaxed and the acting restrained. The fragility of this calm is revealed through the sudden changes that come bursting through the equilibrium and the swift punishments that follow errors in judgment. This is perhaps best appreciated by observing Vlacil’s motif of people getting torn apart by dogs, accounting for a [record-breaking?] 3 out of 4 major deaths in the film.
The looming danger and fear that mark the dark ages is, however, tempered by two systems that appear to provide a path out of the chaos and misery: the monastic life of extreme discipline and the material consolidation of personal power. There seems to be few bridges between the two extremes and it’s interesting to note that the only sign of the live-and-let-live values now considered progressive is a priest whose moral flexibility makes him one of the least likable characters. Inevitable tragedy manages to demolish any chance of hope and harmony, but the final shots acknowledge the human capacity for endurance and even rebirth.
White and black also have important character associations. Armin, for instance, is associated with purity. He has blonde hair, prefers the white cape of the order and rejects the temptation of heterosexual love during a chaste encounter with a blind, fair maiden. Ondrej and his bride have dark hair and dress in thick gray furs that give them an earthy aura in line with their worldly concerns.
Ondrej and Armin show a fascination for light, staring into fires, the glittering ocean or the sunlight that cascades through windows. Both describe a fire within, a burning that they can’t quite understand. Armin associates it with the crusades and his spiritual devotion, reflecting his restlessness to redeem his friend. For Ondrej the inner fire drives him to pick up his father’s torch, returning home to restore his community and marry his mother, though it may also represent his guilty conscience.
As with “Marketa Lazarova” the music of Zdenek Liska and the sound design are integral parts of the film’s tone. Whether it’s Gregorian chant, children’s choir, swarming bees or grave silence, the soundtrack always has a sense for the monumental; somehow detaching us from the characters and dwarfing them. It reminds us of the beauty and surrealism in what, in the hands of a less skilled director, could have been a mundane and ugly period piece.
I recommend “Valley of the Bees” for anyone even slightly curious about Frantisek Vlacil, but not in the position where they want to commit to Second Run’s Region 2 DVD of “Marketa Lazarova.” It’s the perfect place to start and leaves me optimistic about trying Facets other Vlacil releases, “The White Dove” and “Adelheid,” though I hear those transfers are less impressive.
Walrus Rating: 9.0